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The Roots of Ed Meese : Reagan's Polemical Attorney General Has Prompted a Major Constitutional Debate, Surprising Those Who Knew Him in His Pragmatic Early Days, in the Quiet Hills of Oakland and During the Turbulent '60s

May 04, 1986|KATE COLEMAN | Kate Coleman, a Berkeley writer who teaches journalism at UC Santa Cruz, participated in the 1960s Free Speech Movement

It was easy to overlook Ed Meese at the start of Ronald Reagan's first term in the White House. Interior Secretary James G. Watt and United Nations Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick easily overshadowed the longtime Reagan factotum as Administration standard-bearers for the New Right. Meese was late to controversy, and even the revelations about his personal financial dealings that emerged from his confirmation hearings as attorney general smacked less of outright wrongdoing than did the accusations against a host of lesser appointees who by the second Reagan term had been driven from office.

Of the troika of advisers who served the President during his first term, Meese was the most outspoken on issues but nonetheless was rather colorless--certainly no media attraction compared to Chief of Staff James A. Baker III, the daily nuts-and-bolts man, or Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver, the Nancy Reagan confidant.

Nevertheless, statement by statement, controversy by controversy, Edwin Meese III began to emerge in the public perception--even before he became attorney general in 1985 after a rancorous year of debate over his nomination--as a one-man scourge of traditional liberal thinking and as the Administration's ideological point man.

In 1981, in a speech before the California Peace Officers Assn., he called the American Civil Liberties Union a "criminals' lobby." At Christmas time in 1983, he said he had seen no "authoritative" evidence of a serious hunger problem in America, and that some people go to soup kitchens "because the food is free, and that's easier than paying for it." This year, five days before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday was first celebrated as a federal holiday, Meese invoked the slain civil-rights leader's name in attacking affirmative action. King, said Meese, would have opposed affirmative action as a violation of his ideal "colorblind" society.

His Justice Department prompted a series of congressional investigations by refusing to seek the indictment of Teamsters Union president and FBI informant Jackie Presser in connection with a payroll-padding scheme that bilked Presser's union local out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and by negotiating a plea with--rather than prosecuting--executives of E.F. Hutton & Co., the giant brokerage house caught in a huge fraud case that resembled a massive check-kiting operation.

But far more alarming to many lawyers, judges and legal scholars was the attorney general's frontal assault on decades of established constitutional doctrine. He sparked a profound constitutional debate by arguing that Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Bill of Rights had violated the intent of the Founding Fathers. He attacked the high court's long-accepted Miranda rulings on the rights of criminal suspects. He sought to roll back the so-called exclusionary rule, which bars the courtroom use of evidence obtained without "reasonable cause." And, in an unusual move by an attorney general, he publicly called on the Supreme Court to reverse its landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

Many who have known the attorney general since his days as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County in the early 1960s are puzzled by what they detect as a growing vehemence in Meese's policy decisions and his pronouncements. They don't quite recognize their old friend and colleague, whom they remember as pragmatic and mild-mannered. Is Meese a changed man, some wonder, or was he always the gladiator he seems to be now? After years of working in the wings of Reagan administrations in Sacramento and Washington, had he simply been waiting for the right moment to unsheathe his ideological weaponry?

The answer, they suggest, lies in Meese's roots--in a devout and tightknit family that found its highest calling not in grimy politics but in public service; in the shifting social and political structure of Alameda County during World War II, when large numbers of blacks surged in and eventually gained power; in the chummy atmosphere of the debating clubs of Yale and the district attorney's office in Oakland, and in the political turmoil that wracked the UC Berkeley campus and propelled Ed Meese into a friendship with Ronald Reagan and, eventually, into the White House.

San Francisco Appellate Court Justice Clinton W. White, an eloquent jurist who graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school a decade before Meese and for many years was a criminal defense attorney in Alameda, has observed Meese for years from close up and afar. "I can't think of any time in Ed's life," he says, "when he would have received any environmental conditioning that would have made him a liberal."

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